Video Vault: Devo’s absurdist videos featured bizarre characters and a mix of irony & satire

By on July 24, 2017

Night Flight returns to the Video Vault for a colossal selection of music videos by one of our favorites, Akron, Ohio’s Devo! This special show — which originally aired on April 25, 1986 — is now streaming over on our Night Flight Plus channel.

Featured here are the band’s videos for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Whip It,” “Love without Anger,” “That’s Good,” “Beautiful World,” “Peek a Boo,” “Worried Man” (from Neil Young’s Human Highway), “Time Out for Fun,” and, as a special tacked-on tribute, Weird Al Yancovic’s “Dare to be Stupid.”

DEVO1

Devo, of course, requires no real introduction to those of you who watched “Night Flight” back in the 1980s (or MTV, for that matter), considering that they were always one of our favorite bands.

Like many of you, we’ve always loved the way they combined their own unique sense of design and fashion — including those trademark red plastic “flowerpot hats,” which, it turns out, were actually inspired by Mayan and Aztec pyramids — with certifiably avant-garde ideas and experimental multi-media performance art touches, mostly delivered in occasionally abstruse but nevertheless upbeat New Wave-tinged pop songs, all of it swirled around together to create a mix that was truly “original,” which, we have to say, is quite the rarity in mainstream pop music.

Devo always approached their promotional music videos as art, long before other bands did.

DEVO31

“They weren’t just commercial advertisements to get on MTV,” Mothersbaugh would later tell Rolling Stone magazine in 2014 about their videos. “We thought sound and vision was going to bury rock ‘n’ roll and that we were a part of something brand new that was much bigger than rock ‘n’ roll.”

Devo’s videos were usually injected with a much-needed humorous mix of irony and satire, which was then mixed in among the otherwise serious-minded music videos by popular bands of the 1980s, and in doing so, the band soon found themselves slipping into music’s mainstream.

DEVO8

Devo — Mark Mothersbaugh, Bob Motherbaugh, Jerry Casale, Bob Casale, and Alan Myers (who replaced another brother, Jim Mothersbaugh, in 1975) — achieved commercial success with their very first album, the Brian Eno-produced Virgin Records debut Q: Are We Not Men, A: We Are Devo!, which charted at #12 on the UK charts (it was later released in the U.S. by Warner Bros Records).

However, it was really more accurately because of certain of their popular Devo singles — most of which they made videos for, some of which are included in this Video Vault special — which endured and resonated with their adoring fanbase even more than their full-length albums.

Read more about Devo and their videos below.

DEVO2

Hey! Do you have a Night Flight Plus subscription?

We’re offering up original uncut air masters of Night Flight programming from the video vaults of the 1980s TV show, as well as an extensive library of entertainment from our streaming partners, Music Video Distributors (MVD), Arrow Video, Something Weird, Full Moon, Wild East (spaghetti westerns!), the Wu Tang Collection (and also samurai films) and other partners soon to come!

Subscribers can revisit episodes of Night Flight — which has not been broadcast for over thirty years — transferred from the original USA Network air masters, some of them the full, uncut versions complete with ’80s TV commercials!

NIGHT FLIGHT PLUS 1a

You will have exclusive access to original Night Flight episodes — featuring thousands of 1980s-era music vidoes, plus Night Flight “Take Off” episodes, Video Profiles, “Visions,” “Comedy Cuts,” episodes of “Dynaman” and “New Wave Theatre,” to name just a few!

Night Flight Plus currently has more than 200 feature films, carefully selected to fit tightly into the Night Flight DNA, and we’re adding more selections all the time, including our Dr. Ruth Collection, the original Gumby TV series, TV Party, and more!

We’re also offering up an array of provocative new selections from the world of music, documentaries, animation, cult films and more, and occasionally we’ll have specials and features too, like our “Midnight Movies.”

STREAMINGCHOICES

Night Flight has partnered with the major in-home streaming networks — currently we’re on all web browsers, as well as Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku TV, and Google’s Chromecast — to deliver our premium subscription channel to thousands of customers.

A Night Flight subscription membership is seriously reasonable: $2.99 per month/or $29.99 for an annual unlimited access. Now $4.99 monthly premium subscription or a $39.99 yearly subscription/membership.

Get your Night Flight Plus subscription today!

CHUCKSTATLER

Chuck Statler

Some of Devo’s early videos were directed by Casale on his own, or in collaboration with the Minneapolis-based but Akron-born-and-bred Chuck Statler, who Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh met in an experimental sculpture class at Kent State University in the early ’70s (be sure to read our Devo-related post about the May 4, 1970 Kent State Massacre, which resulted in “four dead in Ohio,” as Neil Young famously sang).

Statler is today considered “the Godfather of the Music Video,” which he considers kind of a misnomer but has accepted because he was an enormous fan of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, and so being the godfather of the music video seemed like a pretty cool title to have bestowed upon him.

Statler found that he and the guys in Devo shared the same aesthetics, possibly because the band were from Akron, Ohio, the industrial Midwest.

Statler liked working with mixed-media elements and found footage, and including other surprises in Devo’s absurdist videos, which usually featured bizarre characters and situations.

DEVO29

For these characters, Statler often found people on the street who were already complete characters on their own, asking them to appear in the band’s videos.

Two examples of this would include the two guys in monkey masks who spank a masked woman with ping-pong paddles — which had the images of Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao on them — in Devo’s cover of Johnny Rivers'”Secret Agent Man,” and also the crazy woman with the rolling pin who can be seen in their “Satisfaction” video.

The mother in that video was apparently included because her daughter had offered up her parents house as somewhere where they could film, and mom and her rolling pin sorta came along with the location.

DEVO14

Statler was once asked about it back in the 80s, saying:

“I think it’s my penchant for real characters, who I think are infinitely more interesting than the beautiful people cast in million-dollar productions. I do a lot of streetcasting. I used to cast by teeth — large teeth, small teeth, broken teeth — now I think it’s hair.”

Statler’s work for Devo began with their ten-minute experimental film, The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution (1976), which came about because the band were on the verge of breaking up.

They’d originally formed in 1973, making their first public performance at the Kent State Creative Arts Festival that same year, and began recording demos as early as ’74.

DEVO19

One of the songs they demoed was their version of the Rolling Stones 1965 hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” a quintessential rock song if there ever was one, but their version replaced the original Keith Richards fuzzed-out riff with a nervous, herky-jerky electronic-sounding scramble.

One of the times they performed the song was in 1975, at the memorably unforgettable and disastrous Halloween Party sponsored by Cleveland, Ohio radio station WMMS.

At the time, they were likely playing the song a lot slower than the version they ended up recording in 1978, as you can see in this video of Devo at Max’s Kansas City, in New York, on July 9, 1977:

The Halloween show audience — likely more heavy rock-oriented due to the station’s promotion bringing out a big crowd, hoping to hear a local version of Led Zeppelin, no doubt — were turned off by Devo’s use of synthesizers and electronic drums, and they began pelting the band members with beer cans.

Their 1978 video for “Satisfaction” — featuring the anarchistic dance stylings of an L.A.-based punk rock dancer named Spazz Attack (Craig Allen Rothwell) — still epitomizes the band’s uneasy, irreverent attempt to take Mick Jagger’s famous rock hit about not being sexually satisfied in bed, and turns it on its head, making it into what Jerry Casale later called said was “some kind of nasty, mechanical reggae polka.”

DEVO5

The band — dressed in their identical yellow radiation jumpsuits and wearing dark glasses — seemed to being making fun of Jagger’s rock starrish sexual prowess and his ability to get laid (or, rather, being frustrated when it didn’t just happen automatically) and even changes the lyrics (from “I can’t get no girl reaction” to “I can’t get me no girly action”) to make the point that they were making fun of the song’s original message.

DEVO20

The only character who finds “satisfaction” in the video, in fact, is the unsocialized Booji Boy, who electrocutes himself by sticking a fork in a toaster.

DEVO18

A few years ago, Mothersbaugh told Rolling Stone that, in those days, to do a song cover, you had to get permission from the artist, and he detailed what happened when he and Casale went to the Rolling Stones manager’s office in Manhattan.

“Mick Jagger came in and he just kind of looked at us. We put the record on the turntable, and after about thirty seconds, he jumps up and starts dancing around to it. Then he said to us, [in a British accent] ‘That’s my favorite version of this song!’ To us, even that he was in the same room was pretty overwhelming.”

DEVO17

Devo didn’t break up, of course, and continued to develop their unique sound and stage presence, and for the next few years they even went on to create their own imagery which would come into play years later, including the use of found objects like comic books, obscure religious tracts, masks, enema bags, and potatoes, for which they preferred to use the term “spuds,” which Mothersbaugh says is the word they use to describe the “everyman.”

DEVO21

Mothersbaugh: “In the world of vegetables, the spud is kind of dirty. it comes from the earth. It’s lowly, yet it’s the staple of everyone’s diet. Being a spud is like being a part of the wad, part of mankind’s genetic pool.”

Mothersbaugh has further explained that they incorporated potatoes, or spuds, into their philosophy — calling themselves spuds both pejoratively and also using it as a compliment — as a way to show how bored they were with society.

DEVO16

Devo went on to have a cult following that saw fans traveling from all over Ohio to come to their highly-theatrical rock shows — they often performed at Cleveland’s Pirate Cove and the Eagle Street Saloon (formerly Clockwork Orange) and Akron’s the Bank — and they also released a single (“Mongoloid” b/w “Jocko Homo”) on their own Boojie Boy label.

By 1976, though, they’d become disillusioned and depressed that they’d pitched their music all around the Midwest, sending out cassette tapes, but it turned out their music was just too offbeat for most people who heard it, and after months of no real forward movement, they’d decided they should probably break up.

DEVO15

It was Statler who suggested they make a film about the band in order to document what they’d created thus far, and it was that film — a kind of audio-video manifesto which told the story about de-evolution — which in turn created the interest in Devo that they’d hope to do with just their demo tapes.

Statler’s film, In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution, focused primarily on Mothersbaugh’s white-coated mad professor character, lecturing to students in a formal hall, presumably about the band’s de-evolution philosophy, which is the idea that evolution was actually going in reverse.

Mark Mothersbaugh has explained many times that “the Devo concept was that man is de-evolving through the dehumanizing effect of modern technology.”

The band took their name from the term de-evolution as well as making it their duty to spread the word about what was happening: that, despite the conceit of modern society and their belief that we’re at the pinnacle of a process of evolutionary and technological progress, we’re actually de-volving.

DEVO3

You can, of course, get the sense of what de-evolution is all about by listening to their song “Jocko Homo,” which serves as a kind of primer on Devo theory.

It’s their unconventional “big idea” that mankind is on a slow, inevitable slide backward, a de-evolution. Science, technology and capitalism have actually reduced human’s capacity to think and experience their own reality — we have all become, in their words, “pinheads.”

Homo sapiens have become “Jocko Homo,” in other words, a state in which we are no longer able to think like rational beings, and we now lack the capacity to empathize or be creative.

Devo even went further to claim that businessmen in search of the all-might dollar were more like monkeys, and that humans are now on the same level as apes.

DEVO12

For those of you who like to know more background about where it may have started, The Beginning Was The End was also the name of a work of dubious “anthropology,” written by a crazy Yugoslavian anthropologist named Oscar Kiss Maerth.

Published in 1973, the premise of this rather unscientific work was listed on the book’s title page: “Man came into being through cannibalism — intelligence can be eaten.”

The book then goes on to develop his theory that Homo sapiens are the result of a group of apes who became addicted to so-called “brain food,” wiping out Neanderthal man by eating them all, which Casale points out, means that human beings “have descended from an inane brain-eating species of ape and have created religion and science to justify the shame of being unnatural.”

DEVO9

In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution took the first prize at the 1977 Ann Arbor Film Festival (Devo has occasionally claimed that the film actually contained subliminal messages, which allowed it to win at Ann Arbor).

The In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution film — later shown at the beginning of most of Devo’s concerts — introduced the world to some of the first characters who become part of Devo’s orbit thereafter, including Booji Boy and his father, General Boy, a symbol of the Cold War-era military industrial complex and an authoritarian personality.

DEVO37

General Boy, as it turned out, was the first character not portrayed by a member of the band. He was actually played by Mark Mothersbaugh’s father, who agreed to take on the role after a lawyer friend of the band backed out over concerns that the film would “color his reputation.”

General Boy was later seen in Devo’s “Girl U Want” video, orchestrating events behind-the-scenes for an “American Bandstand”-type show that Devo are performing on.

The band’s passion for their award-winning film brought them out to Los Angeles that same year, where they began getting some of their music played on local FM stations, and word of mouth about the band began to spread.

That led to more gigs, including CBGB’s in New York City, which ultimately led to them being introduced to David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who were in the midst of Pop’s tour for his album New Values at the time, who then took the band with them to Germany.

Bowie also introduced them to Brian Eno, who offered to produce their first album for release on Virgin UK.

DEVO7

On October 14, 1978, Devo appeared on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” performing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” with host Fred Willard doing the introduction.

Their manager, Elliot Roberts, negotiated with the show to allow the band to show their ten-minute Truth About De-Evolution film, and overnight they were seen by some 17 million viewers, some three years before their videos would be shown on MTV.

Casale has said that their appearance on “SNL” gave the band their biggest break, to date.

“Before doing that show, the biggest crowd we had played to was about four hundred people at Max’s Kansas City, so our films had only really been seen in clubs.”

DEVO11

Immediately afterwards, Devo’s club tour sold out their shows, and they had to reschedule some of those gigs to bigger venues.

In 1979, by the time their second album Duty Now for the Future was released (#49 on the UK charts), Devo were practically a household name in the U.S. (as well as attracting a sizeable semi-cult following in Japan), although it was still a few years before the launch of MTV, and “Night Flight,” of course.

By the time MTV launched in 1981, the band had released their third album, 1980’s Freedom of Choice, which featured a huge single, “Whip It,” one of the first hit songs that used a synthesizer as the lead instrument.

DEVO4

It turns out that despite letting fans believe the song was about jacking off or sado-masochism, it was actually written by Mark Mothersbaugh as a song of encouragement for then-president Jimmy Carter.

DEVO24

Despite thoughts to the contrary,” Mothersbaugh explained further, ‘Whip It’ was written for Jimmy Carter, who we were fans of. We felt bad about the bad rap he was getting [on the hostage crisis]. It was our own version of Dale Carnegie, a ‘you can do it’ anthem. Like when we say, ‘When a problem comes along, you must whip it … go forward, move ahead, it’s not too late to whip, whip it good.’ Yeah, people thought it was sexual. That’s probably why it sold so well.”

Mothersbaugh has also said that the song was meant as an encouragement to Carter, as a way of saying, “Come on, Jimmy, get your shit together.”

DEVO23

“Whip It” — which peaked at #14 in the U.S. Top Forty (Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart) — seems to be the best of the band’s early 80s output, but lyrically it started out, however, as Mothersbaugh’s attempt to parody what writer Thomas Pynchon had already parodied in his book Gravity’s Rainbow, which Pynchon had done in the form of limericks and poems, making fun of the all-American, obsessive, cult of personality ideas of individuals like Horatio Alger.

Mothersbaugh thought Pynchon’s poems and limericks were very clever, and he wanted to do the same thing with the song.

DEVO26

The video — shot for around $15,000 in the band’s rehearsal studio — featured what appears to be a log cabin set occupied by an apron-clad Italian-looking mother and a mysterious cross–eyed Asian woman, with foxy cowboys and cowgirls, leaning on a wood fence and sipping from cans of Budweiser, while Mothersbaugh, wearing that red flowerpot hat, wields a black whip with great skill.

When Devo’s Gerald “Jerry” Casale was asked where the band got their ideas for their videos he said:

“They nearly always came from a combination of junk mags, pet TV Shows, and dreams that Mark and I had. This led to verbal discussions, and we came up with the on going idea that if something made us laugh then it went in!”

DEVO28

Casale has said that the “Whip It” video was “based on a magazine I’d found, one of those 1950s gentlemen’s magazines with soft-core nudies. It had an article about a dude ranch owned by an ex-stripper and her husband. As part of the enteretainment, he’d whip her clothes off in the corral for all the guests to watch.”

Casale has also said that is was a 1962 issue of a magazine called Dude, and the article mentioned that the ex-stripper’s husband was an actor who had fallen on hard times and moved to Arizona, opening up the dude ranch and whipping his wife (who wore costumes she made herself, held together with Velcro) with a 12-foot bullwhip.

Devo’s video certainly fit any definition of devo human behavior that the band could think of, while it also certainly meant to parody the cowboy-ish, macho-sexist mentality of America at large.

DEVO25

That rather satirical jab was aimed directly at one of America’s favorite cowboys at the time, as well, then-candiate Ronald Reagan, who was running for president against the incumbent Democrat, Jimmy Carter.

Mothersbaugh: “The cowboys — they were the Reagan Republicans at the time. We knew it was going to be bad, but we didn’t know it was going to be so bad that by the time Reagan went out of office no longer would people sneer or call us cynics when we predicted de-evolution and the downward spiral. Everybody just kind of looked at us like, ‘yeah, we know what you mean’.”

DEVO27

Casale added: “We were horrified by Reagan’s ascent, so we were just making fun of myths of cowboys in the West.”

All of Devo’s early videos garned heavy MTV airplay, and at first — when MTV launched they were running in just three cities as a kind of test market experiment — the network were begging Devo for their videos, and began playing them day and night.

Once the network went national, though, MTV began to censor what they would allow in videos, and Casale has said that the band were treated very badly.

DEVO32

MTV weren’t the only ones treating the band badly, too.

Even though Devo would ultimately sell two million albums by 1981, Warner Bros Records — their domestic record company — only increased the pressure to get them to sell even more, hoping to break them out as an even bigger band, hoping that they’d reach the level of another of their acts, the Cars.

Devo ultimately found themselves increasingly bossed around by Warner Bros, and they struggled on for years, stuck at a middling success level just a notch above cult status, finding themselves eventually succumbing to their own unique form of de-evolution, winding up as a kind of parody of costume-wearing rock bands for nerds, a new wave Kiss.

DEVO33

Chuck Statler also directed Devo’s videos for “Beautiful World,” in which Booji Boy is seen at the controls of a futuristic TV showing the video and intercut with said video shown full-screen on a viewer’s TV, showing us stock footage.

Initially, Booji Boy watches scenes of beautiful women, futuristic cars and other happy elements — Casale would describe this as ” Americana pop culture stuff from the past and silly imagery of silly people” — but by the end of the song, the images have switched to scenes from sexploitation film dance scenes, old war movies, Ku Klux Klan rallies, and the police down south, beating rioting civil rights demonstrators, famine in Africa, car crashes and nuclear explosions, all putting a much darker spin on the song’s lyrics about our “beautiful world.”

DEVO30

Statler also directed the band’s “Love without Anger” video — which, like many of their videos, was shot on location in Minneapolis — in which the members of Devo appear as a Greek chorus in a bizarre love story between two humanoid chickens.

The video also features a stop-motion video by Rev. Ivan Stang (Church of the SubGenius) of Barbie and Ken dolls fighting each other and removing each other’s body parts.

A portrait of J. R. “Bob” Dobbs can be seen on the wall above the couch.

DEVO35

Also featured in this Video Vault special is the band’s “Worried Man” video, based on Neil Young’s film Human Highway, in which the band appeared (Devo and Neil Young both were managed by Elliot Roberts).

Young had also paid for their cowboy outfits that the band wear in their “Come Back Jonee” video.

DEVO36

“For Human Highway, Neil Young wanted us to be his nightmare,”Mothersbaugh has said.

“He said, ‘You need to be some sort of characters.’ We said, ‘let us be waste disposers.’ We would dump the waste in the creeks or something. So we were riding on the waste disposal truck. The footage came out of the movie. Part of the deal was he said that we could have that for the video.”

DEVO6

We’ve also got a special treat for you at the end of this Video Vault special, the video for “Dare To Be Stupid,” in which Weird Al Yancovic parodies Devo, wearing the same yellow radiation suits that Devo wore in their “Satisfaction” video.

DEVO38

Statler would of course go on to work as a highly-touted visual artist and commercial producer, as well as revolutionizing pre-MTV promotional videos, also lensing stylized short films and documentaries for bands/artists like the Cars, Elvis Costello, Pere Ubu, Graham Parker, J. Geils Band, Madness (check out our previous post on their Statler-directed video of “One Step Beyond”), the Time, and Prince, to name just a few.

You can read more about In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution in this previous post.

Over on Night Flight Plus, we’ve got Devo‘s The Complete Truth About De-Evolution (read more here); Devo: The Men Who Make the Music (read more here); Hardcore Devo Live! (read more here) and other great Devo selections, but do check out the videos we pulled together from the Video Vault too!.

DEVO34

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • http://uglyradio.wordpress.com/ Richard Vachel Lindsay

    The chicken people images come from the Love Without Anger video, which was directed by none other than Ivan Stang of the Church of Subgenius.